SANFORD, Fla. – Heading into the final two games of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying, the United States find themselves in last-chance crunch time.
Sitting fourth in the six-team Hexagonal field, facing the possibility of a play-in series against an Asian team – or worse yet, missing the tournament entirely for the first time since 1986, the US might be forgiven for juggling scenarios in their heads when they host Panama on Friday and travel to Trinidad and Tobago on Oct. 10 for the Hex finale.
They won't, though, midfielder Dax McCarty said.
“It’s just a fact on how we have to frame our mindset," McCarty told reporters on Monday. "We can’t start getting into different scenarios – ‘Well, if we tie or we lose, we have to hope these results go a certain way.’ No, there’s no talk like that going on in our camp. It’s 'Take care of our own business. Worry about ourselves. Win the games that are in front of us, and we’re going to the World Cup.
“I’m sure we’ll know the [other] results; we’re certainly going follow what happens in the other games. I think it’s really a simple equation for us,” he added. “We don’t want to get into all these different scenarios of ‘What if that happens?’ It’s simple for us, we’re at home. We lost our most recent home game to Costa Rica, and you never want to do that. You never want to lose your home games. You have to win your homes games if you want to be successful and go to the World Cup.”
Mexico have already clinched their spot, while Costa Rica have all but officially booked their plane tickets to Russia. Panama sit third on 10 points, one ahead of the Yanks and Honduras (with the US leading comfortably on goal differential).
“They’re certainly big games,” said Sporting KC’s Graham Zusi after Monday’s training session. “We’re in a position where, to be honest, where we want to be. Our destiny is in our own hands. We can control it, and as long as we take care of business, we’ll be happy.
“I think you've seen this team respond to pressure well in the past. We’ve been in these situations before, and it always seems like we come together at the right time and take care of the job. That’s the mentality going into this week.”
USMNT head coach Bruce Arena brushed off talks of pressure – instead emphasizing an urgency to win, which is the primary message echoed across the squad.
“This is an important game, there’s no question about it,” Arena said. “I think we’ll have a team ready to play. We’re real pleased to be in Orlando; we think we’re going to get great support here, so it should be a good night.”
Arena said he expects Panama to play more of a defensive game on Friday, especially after starting out strong in qualifying.
“They had a good qualifying campaign to date. They started out strong, maybe fell short in the middle of the campaign and then came back with a big win in their last game,” he said. “They’re a team in third place, they’re ahead of us. Give them a lot of credit and respect.”